Cincy Science: That sinking feeling about sinkholes and why they happen where they happen

CINCINNATI - Ever ask, "What is that?" Or, "Why is that?" In our new "Cincy Science" feature, we talk with people who can answer those questions: The folks who do science in Cincinnati and the Tri-State.

In February, car enthusiasts cringed when they viewed footage of the massive sinkhole that swallowed eight classic cars at the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky.

Nearly a year ago, a sinkhole of greater magnitude proved deadly when it consumed a south Florida man's bedroom while he slept.

Closer to home, there was the Norwood sinkhole last May.

These stories both pointed to underground caverns as being the culprit, but what actually causes the caverns to form and are we at any risk of sinkholes in the Tri-State?

University of Cincinnati professor and archeological geologist Ken Tankersley explained why the ground gives way. He said caverns are essentially in his DNA, coming from generations of coal miners in southern Kentucky, and ancestors who lived above caverns in Yorkshire, England.

Q&A: What's the deal with sinkholes?

1. How common are sinkholes in that particular region by the Corvette Museum?

That area contains the largest cave system in the world which is Mammoth Cave National Park, and the national park is in eyesight of the museum. The reason the longest cave in the world is located there is because there’s a thick accumulation and just massive amounts of what we call Mississippian Age limestone.

2. What causes sinkholes like the one in Bowling Green?

What happens is, limestone is made of calcium carbonate, and if you’ve ever added vinegar to baking soda as a kid, the same thing happens in nature. Vinegar is an acid and the limestone is calcium carbonate, and when the rainwater hits the ground, it starts to mix with organic material such as leaves and the roots of plants and that creates an organic acid. As that percolates into the bedrock, it starts to dissolve the rock creating cracks on planes of weaknesses.



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